Lesléa Newman is the author of 60 books including A Letter to Harvey Milk, Nobody’s Mother, Hachiko Waits, Write from the Heart,The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Best Cat in the World, and Heather Has Two Mommies. Her most recent book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, is now available. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
“And you shall lay down, and no man shall terrify you….” Whenever I stand up in shul on Shabbat and recite those words from the prayer for peace, I am transported back in time to 1998, and across many miles to Laramie, Wyoming.
It was October, and I was all set to travel out west as the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming. My bags were packed, and my speech was written. “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship, and Family Values” focused on the difficulties I had in getting my book Heather Has Two Mommies published, and how important it is for every child to see a family like his or hers reflected in a piece of literature. As a Jew growing up in the 1950’s, I knew what it was like to read books about children trimming the Christmas tree and looking for the Easter bunny. Books like Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah and A Mezuzah on the Door had not yet been written. Growing up without seeing a family like mine in a book or movie or on a TV show made me feel like I didn’t belong. There was no place for me.
As a child, I couldn’t articulate my need to see someone like myself reflected back at me by the culture at large, let alone do something about it. As an adult, I could write books for children whose families were considered “different” so that they did not feel so alone.
But two days before I was to step on the plane, Jim Osborn, the head of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Student Group called. He told me his friend Matthew Shepard, who was also a member of the LGBT group, had been kidnapped, robbed, beaten mercilessly, tied to a fence, and left to die. He was discovered 18 hours later by a biker, and was now in the hospital, in a coma. Jim knew that Matt being attacked right before Gay Awareness Week started was not a coincidence. “I would understand it if you wanted to cancel your appearance,” Jim said to me.
The words that flashed through my mind were: If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Jim seemed to think that any speech I could give would have a healing effect on his community. As a Jew, I take the job of tikkun olam very very seriously. So I told Jim that I had every intention of being there.